10-19-23

22 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY october 19-25, 2023 www.montereycountyweekly.com range of fruit showing, but also notes of limestone, mushrooms, potting soil, floral tinges and curious notations of rhubarb and beet. An impression of vanilla and spice tells of time in neutral oak, with some new staves. And clearly it was cool in the Cote d’Or that year. “We do everything to take the fun out of wine,” Birkemeier says with a laugh. “But when you’re on a flow, that’s fun. There’s nothing in the world but you and the wine.” When he became a winemaker, Miller was able to let go of some of the minutiae demanded of a master sommelier. “There are a lot of sacrifices,” he points out. “You have to study a lot of things you don’t really want on your brain, unless you’re a masochist.” The Master Sommelier Diploma Examination and Court of Master Sommeliers are relatively new creations, with the first exam taking place in England in 1969. The court dates to 1977, formed as a governing body for the test and to uphold the stature of the title. Both quickly gained acceptance rising to the level of reverence. “It’s a weird thing—a very difficult, prestigious exam that matters only for a small number of people,” Miller observes. “But it resonates; it’s taken on an elusiveness.” Just four masters or former members of the court are associated with Monterey County. Miller is the only one still active in the area. Seabold Cellars operates a tasting room in Carmel Valley and has vineyards in the county, although its main facility is in Hollister. Jim Rollston now works at a restaurant in Woodside, but once handled wine service for Casanova and The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Alpana Singh dropped out of Monterey Peninsula College when she got the wine bug, taking a job at Nielsen Bros. Market in Carmel. But she gained fame at a series of Chicago restaurants—and when she renounced her master sommelier status three years ago when reports of sexual harassment within the court surfaced. Best known is Monterey native Fred Dame. The first person ever to pass all three portions of the exam on the first attempt, he was featured in the popular documentary series Somm. A 2008 story in the Weekly spoke of his legendary nose, able to determine a varietal and vintage by its bouquet alone. Dame helped establish the Court of Master Sommelier America, with jurisdiction over the examination in the U.S. and other countries in the hemisphere. At the behest of Balestreri, he also put together the first master sommelier exam administered in the U.S., which was hosted at the Sardine Factory in 1986, where Dame served as wine director. The event was a stark reminder of the test’s difficulties. One person passed. Dozens buckled in tears. “It was a disaster,” Balestreri says, thinking back to that day and the humiliated expressions of those who missed the cut. “I thought, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.’” Balestreri reminisces with mixed emotions. At the time, he observes, American wines were consigned to the back of the menu at fine dining restaurants. But at the Sardine Factory, they were assembling a selection of American labels, with particular pride in California wines—right alongside with European names. It was crucial to develop a class of experts. In 1968, when the restaurant opened, liquor made up 90 percent of beverage sales. But demand has changed dramatically since. Today, wine accounts for around 75 percent at the Sardine Factory. “I’m sad and I’m proud,” Balestreri says of that historic first, still lingering on the disappointment in the room, but recognizing the significance of the event. “It launched a thousand ships.” Dame went on to work with several California wineries. But his name was removed from the court, along with several other masters, following allegations of sexual harassment in 2020 and the conclusion of a third-party, non-criminal investigation into the matter. (The Weekly reached out, but could not locate Dame by deadline.) There has been one other serious blow to the court’s reputation. In 2018 an unprecedented 24 candidates passed the exam, held at the Four Seasons in St. Louis, earning master sommelier honors—temporarily. It soon came out that a proctor for the event, master sommelier Reggie Narito, had tipped a few of the candidates off as to the identity of two wines included in the blind tasting. Twenty-three of the new masters had their titles stripped, although the court is allowing them to retake the exam. Narito was dismissed from the court. Birkemeier took part in the St. Louis test. He was unaffected by the scandal, but it was particularly difficult. He is originally from the city and had family duties in addition to the demands of the test. Yet he sailed through the service portion, only to be foiled again by the blind tasting. On Sept. 5 in Houston, Birkemeier was summoned to a conference room of The Post Oak Hotel, where he learned the outcome of his efforts studying for the 2023 exam. Of the 34 wine professionals who made the attempt, only Jonathan Eichholz of New York and Mark Guillaudeu from Phoenix passed, accepting the title of Master Sommelier and the coveted red lapel pin that goes with it, as well as the prestige and potential for increased income. The Salinas restaurateur has come to expect the result. But he is not giving up. Instead, he is returning to the routine of practice and study with renewed vigor—to the flashcards, the books, the grid, and maybe adding new techniques. “Analytically there’s something else I have to do,” he says. “I have to figure out what that is.” For Birkemeier, the exam has become a journey. But the clock is counting down. If he doesn’t pass both the service and tasting portions in 2024, the timer resets to zero. If that happens, he will reevaluate whether pursuit of the master sommelier title is worth the sacrifice. For the next many months, however, he is striking ahead, undaunted. Having the designation MS after one’s name brings opportunities—book deals, consulting gigs, a higher paycheck. Birkemeier began the journey knowing this. After a decade, however, money is not the motivation. “I set the challenge for myself and I’ve been chasing it ever since,” he explains. “It’s made me a better person. If I don’t become a master, at least I can say I gave it everything I had.” “Some of the angriest people I’ ve met are people who have failed the test.” The grid for studying red wines (foreground) and white wines. Birkemeier says it can take time to become comfortable with the grid.

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